Practice what we prize

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By Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016

 

“Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

 

When student journalists put the final fall issue of the college newspaper to bed last December, I breathed a sigh of relief. Incredibly, we’d made it through the semester without any threats. Challenges, yes. Threats, no.

 

They published their last issue for this academic year on Friday, April 29, 2016. We celebrated another award-winning year—and a full year unmarred by threats.

I’m the adviser for the student newspaper. I am also a career journalist who’s covered conflict in the Middle East and Africa. I came to the college in 2012 after completing assignments in Afghanistan.

 

In a decade of covering conflict, I’ve dealt with threats. I never expected to encounter threats on a small college campus.

 

In my first year as adviser, a student journalist wrote an article about a sex education workshop that generated some controversy—and threats, many from fellow students. Some of the threats were anonymous, through social media; others through the grapevine. Some threats implied bodily harm. The student’s mother said she was coming to remove her daughter from campus out of fear for her safety.

 

I spoke with the student’s mother, the counseling center and campus security. The dean of students joined the conversation. The student did not return to her dorm room that weekend. She stayed in a secure location with friends.

 

Another story reported the arrests of two students on multiple drug charges. After this story published, a group of students stormed the newsroom, shouting and throwing things. One of the frightened student journalists had 9-1-1 keyed on her cell phone. When another student journalist was walking across campus with a stack of newspapers for delivery, a passing student asked if she worked for the paper. She said yes, and the student spit on her.

 

After a story last year, a student was singled out in her class, bullied and intimidated solely for her participation on the newspaper. Despite the stress she felt in class, she didn’t file a complaint. She feared reprisal and further harassment. She feared her grade might suffer. I checked in with her in person or by text after nearly every class.

 

In the spring of 2015, a student objected to an opinion piece about snow removal. He wrote a lengthy, angry, threatening email to the student writer then later to the editors. He demanded the opinion piece be removed and he wanted an apology, though he was not the subject of the piece.

 

The student journalists offered the appropriate recourse for the aggrieved student. They told him that he could write a letter to the editor or his own guest column. He didn’t. He continued to intimidate the staff, primarily through email until one night he came into the newsroom uninvited and hovered over an editor.

 

I spoke with the counseling center multiple times and campus security. I discussed the situation with the student editors and they decided they would try to work through it before they asked the counseling center and administrators to intervene.

Next, I was called into a meeting and learned the angry student had filed a complaint against me. He was threatening legal action.

 

I explained the emails, the escalating, out-of-proportion behavior and the course of action I’d taken. I expressed my genuine concern for the safety and wellbeing of the student journalists and myself. The administrators blamed me for not meeting with the student. I said that I would not meet with a student who had threatened other students.

The student journalists handed over all the emails and explained their concerns. We were sure that would be the end of it.

 

I was called into another meeting and asked to sign a no-contact order, indicating that I would have no contact with the student. I didn’t understand. What is it? And why would I sign a no-contact order for a student with whom I’ve had no contact? Will he sign an order to have no contact with the student journalists and me? I declined to sign a no-contact order.

 

In the last meeting, the administrators told me the student had said I was harassing and following him, making him uncomfortable. I said that’s simply impossible since I didn’t know him. Noting details revealed in the conversation, I realized that the student knew my schedule and routine and he was following and observing me.

 

The administrators said they found him credible. I found a lawyer.

 

I followed my attorney’s advice. I wrote an “in-case-anything-should-happen-to-me” letter, tucked it in a drawer and informed a trusted friend of its content and my situation. She encouraged me to trust my intuition.

 

I stopped returning to my office at night. I changed my schedule and routine. We changed the open-door policy at the newsroom. The door now remains shut and locked when students are working.

 

On the advice of my attorney, I did not attend our college’s bicentennial graduation last May. I didn’t see students I’d come to respect and cherish, including several members of the newspaper staff, celebrate their accomplishments. I didn’t get to meet their families and pose for photographs. I left town.

 

After the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last fall, my friend texted me: I couldn’t help but think of you spring semester.

 

Our college has a statement of community that offers students and employees “an inclusive, respectful and safe residential learning community that will actively confront and challenge racism, sexism, heterosexism, religious bigotry, and other forms of harassment and discrimination.”

 

I have not experienced this community.

It’s said that if students are going to be journalists, they should get used to criticism and learn to weather the tough spots. That’s true. A career in journalism will require a thick skin. As the late, iconic White House reporter Helen Thomas said: “We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.”

 

It’s one thing for someone to object to a story in the college newspaper; it’s another to cross the line into bullying and threats. I want people to remember that the student journalists are first and foremost students. They are entitled to the rights and protections in their learning environment as outlined in the statement of community.

 

I understand this abusive intolerance is not unique to our campus. It’s become part of our political polemics. It’s voiced nationally and globally. We need to address the problem.

College is a place to learn to think critically and speak freely. Our college offers an annual prize of Civility in Public Life. Practicing civility on our campus would be a good start.

Let’s create a class that teaches students how to read the news and respond respectfully. Let’s learn to offer criticism without condemnation. Let’s teach students how to disagree without hurling toxic language, accusations and threats.

 

I’ve been warned that speaking up about these incidents could have repercussions. I also know I am a journalist and an educator. I teach in a newsroom and a classroom. I teach by example.

 

I will no longer be silent.

 

And I will attend graduation this year.

 

Note: This column was first published on The Huffington Post on May 5, 2016.

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The hardest part of leaving is letting go

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Long before 9/11 and the TSA, I would stand at the departure gate at the airport.

I’d watch my friend, family member or beloved, walk down the gangplank to the plane. I’d wave until he disappeared from sight. I’d shift to the giant windows and press my face against the glass, trying to find his face among the oval windows on the plane. I’d stand and wait until the plane backed out. I’d watch until it took off and disappeared from sight.

I didn’t want to leave.

As an Army BRAT, I moved with my family more than 20 times before I graduated from high school. It’s a pattern I continued as an adult in my work as a foreign correspondent. While I have a lot of experience with leaving, it’s never been easy for me.

In truth, we are all leaving from the moment we draw our first breath.

In The Campus newsroom a couple weeks ago, Amanda Spadaro said she had a moment. A graduating senior and co-editor-in-chief, she looked around the newsroom where she’d spent countless hours of her four years at Allegheny. She remembered the late nights, the laughter, the good times and the tough times. She looked at the students she’d shared so much with and those who would carry on in her absence next year. She realized she was leaving.

Spadaro left her hometown in Washington, Pennsylvania four years ago. On Saturday, she’ll graduate with a major in biology and a minor in English. She has no immediate plans after graduation, though she’s in the running for an internship at The Meadville Tribune.

Her career plans: “Pipe dream is to be the next Ida Tarbell, so. We’ll see how that goes. “

Elliott Bartels, The Campus Web manager, left his hometown in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, four years ago. Bartels will graduate with an ecology major and a graphic design minor. Immediately after graduation, Bartels will work in Charlotte, North Carolina for Wildlands Engineering, a bio/environmental engineering firm that specializes in water remediation and mitigation.

His career plans: “Working for a while as an environmental engineer/scientist to pay off loans and to afford a new project Jaguar, then maybe back to grad school to increase $$$ and get a degree in upper management/business.”

The Campus features editor Claire Teague left her hometown in Chatham, N.J. for Allegheny. Saturday she’ll graduate with an English major and economics minor. This summer she’ll be working for the Presbyterian Church of New Providence where she’ll be the assistant director to the youth program, working with hundreds of high school and middle school students.

Sam Stephenson, The Campus co-editor-in-chief, left his hometown in Portland, Oregon, four years ago. He’ll graduate with an English major with a focus in journalism and an economics minor. He’ll head home and teach summer tennis camps, work out and get ready for the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School.

His career plans: “Join the Marine Corps as an officer and stay in as long as my heart is content. Eventually though, I’d like to have a career in journalism or communications, but that might not start for a while!”

At Allegheny’s bicentennial commencement today, parents will watch their children cross the stage and collect a diploma. They’ll shout and wave and snap photos. They’ll also wonder where the time went. They can remember when their children left home for college. Now they’ll watch as they leave their college home for new adventures.

When my folks take me to the airport now, I linger by the curb. I hug my mom. I hug my dad. I don’t want to leave. My father insists on taking my luggage to the check-in counter. Usually, I’ll leave the cart and run back outside and stop my parents before they leave. One more hug. One more “I love you.”

The hardest thing about leaving is letting go.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-the-hardest-thing-about-leaving-is-letting/article_86b87cd4-f511-11e4-adf0-270d6b767289.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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